Our Vampires, Ourselves

Our Vampires, Ourselves

by Nina Auerbach

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Nina Auerbach shows how every age embraces the vampire it needs, and gets the vampire it deserves. Working with a wide range of texts, as well as movies and television, Auerbach locates vampires at the heart of our national experience and uses them as a lens for viewing the last two hundred years of Anglo-American cultural history.

"[Auerbach] has seen more…  See more details below


Nina Auerbach shows how every age embraces the vampire it needs, and gets the vampire it deserves. Working with a wide range of texts, as well as movies and television, Auerbach locates vampires at the heart of our national experience and uses them as a lens for viewing the last two hundred years of Anglo-American cultural history.

"[Auerbach] has seen more Hammer movies than I (or the monsters) have had steaming hot diners, encountered more bloodsuckers than you could shake a stick at, even a pair of crossed sticks, such as might deter a very sophisticated ogre, a hick from the Moldavian boonies....Auerbach has dissected and deconstructed them with the tender ruthlessness of a hungry chef, with cogency and wit."—Eric Korn, Times Literary Supplement

"This seductive work offers profound insights into many of the urgent concerns of our time and forces us to confront the serious meanings that we invest, and seek, in even the shadiest manifestations of the eroticism of death."—Wendy Doniger, The Nation

"A vigorous, witty look at the undead as cultural icons."—Kirkus Review

"In case anyone should think this book is merely a boring lit-crit exposition...Auerbach sets matters straight in her very first paragraph. 'What vampires are in any given generation,' she writes, 'is a part of what I am and what my times have become. This book is a history of Anglo-American culture through its mutating vampires.'...Her book really takes off."—Maureen Duffy, New York Times Book Review

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Literary scholar and vampire enthusiast Auerbach (Forbidden Journeys, LJ 4/15/92) poses this book as a history of the Anglo-American culture through its ever-changing vampires. Tracing the evolution of vampires from 19th-century England through 20th-century America, Auerbach makes a number of new and interesting observations that will undoubtedly spur future scholarly discourse on vampirology. From depictions of vampires by Lord Byron down to those of Stephen King and Anne Rice and their various adaptations throughout literature or film, Auerbach illustrates how vampires are personifications of their age, reflecting and embodying social, political, and cultural change. Auerbach's interjections of personal and political points of view may raise questions about objectivity, but her compelling assertions definitely whet the appetite for further exploration and analysis of vampires and culture. Recommended for most public libraries.-Jeris Cassel, Rutgers Univ. Libs., New Brunswick, N.J.
Auerbach (English, U. of PA) looks at the meaning of the vampire in the past 200 years of Anglo-American cultural history, examining text, film, and television sources to show how every age embraces the vampire it needs. She explores conceptions of the vampire in relation to changing ideologies of power, and discusses the rebirth of the vampire tradition in queer theory. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Our Vampires, Ourselves

By Nina Auerbach

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1995 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-05618-0


Giving Up the Ghost: Nineteenth-Century Vampires

"Ha! what a delightful thing is friendship!"

Varney the Vampire

Byron's Ghost

Vampires were not demon lovers or snarling aliens in the early nineteenth century, but singular friends. In those days it was a privilege to walk with a vampire. They were not yet the specialized creatures we know today, recognizable by distinguishing characteristics—fangs, fruity accents, eccentric clothes—and killable by experts on their many limitations. In those early days, few vampires were defined enough to die; not all of them sucked blood to stay alive. They were indeterminate creatures who flourished, not in their difference from their human prey, but through their intimate intercourse with mortals, to whom they were dangerously close.

Byron in his most congenial mood modeled for the first literary vampire to captivate the popular imagination: he depicted himself as a lordly comrade entitled to supplant such drearily sanctioned forms of love as family and marriage. His traveling companion, the enthralled narrator of the fragmentary tale, endows Augustus Darvell with a glamour at once familiar and unattainable: "We had been educated at the same schools and university; but his progress through these had preceded mine, and he had been deeply initiated into what was called the world.... He was a being of no common order, and one who, whatever pains he might take to avoid remark, would still be remarkable."

The charmed narrator is not repelled by this remarkable being: he hopes implicitly to become equally uncommon. Darvell is a compelling contemporary and glamorous traveling companion, not—as Count Dracula will be to Jonathan Harker—a repulsive old man who terminates a lonely journey. Like Dickens's Steer-forth traveling to Yarmouth with the adoring David Copperfield, Darvell is his friend's sinister, superior sharer.

His compelling closeness has something in common with the contemporaneous genre Eve Sedgwick wittily calls "paranoid Gothic," in which male homosexual anxiety infuses fears of power: "Each [instance of paranoid Gothic fiction] is about one or more males who not only is persecuted by, but considers himself transparent to and often under the compulsion of, another male." But Darvell is too liberal to persecute a man he likes. So are the vampires he spawned; their main characteristic is congeniality. Presumably Darvell does feed on people, but Byron never shows him doing so; Byron's short fragment stops before Darvell's presumptive rebirth as a vampire. Darvell's menace lies not in sadistic persecution, but in his offer of "intimacy, or friendship, according to the ideas of him who uses those words to express them" (p. 3).

Intimacy and friendship are the lures of Romantic vampirism. In Polidori's amplification of Byron's fragment, the vampire, now more euphoniously named Lord Ruthven, seals his bond with his traveling companion by his repeated admonition, "Remember your oath." In the first half of the nineteenth century, these words were as inevitable a vampire refrain as Dracula's "the children of the night. What music they make!" became in the twentieth. Dracula, however, proclaims his vampirism by pledging allegiance to wolves, while Ruthven's is his human bond.

This oath—to preserve Ruthven's honor by concealing his predatory life and apparent death—has absolute binding power in Polidori's The Vampyre and its many offshoots. The oath is frightening because it involves not raw power, but honor and reciprocity. It avoids the compulsion inherent in Sedgwick's "paranoid Gothic"; the oath signifies instead a bond between companions that is shared and chosen, one far from the Dracula-like mesmeric coercion we associate with vampires today. Byronic vampires are only incidentally interested in blood, or for that matter in life. Their egalitarian promise is intensified by their relative indifference to animals and their persistent flirtation with ghosts. The origin of their intensity was a friendship that never occurred.

The Byronic vampire who was to proliferate through the nineteenth century was shaped less by folklore or Romantic intimations of immortality than by irritation: Byron's journey through Brussels to Geneva in 1816 was punctuated by squabbles with his physician and traveling companion, Dr. John Polidori. Their dislike was formed and fueled by class antagonism: the letters of both insist on their identities as master and servant, lord and vassal, bard and poetaster. In the end, they played out the hierarchical roles that galled them both. Byron released his many tensions by making Polidori's poetic, athletic, and medical ineptitude the butt of his lordly jokes with the Shelleys; after Polidori was dismissed from Byron's retinue, he wrote with a pretense of dignity, "There was no immediate cause, but a continued series of slight quarrels. I believe the fault, if any, has been on my part, I am not accustomed to have a master, & there fore my conduct was not free & easy." When Byron heard two years later that Polidori had had a serious accident, he wrote to his publisher with conspicuous scorn: "I am as sorry to hear of Dr. Polidori's accident as one can be for a person for whom one has a dislike—and—something of contempt" (quoted in Macdonald, p. 153).

But the vampires that rose out of their tense journey transcended class contempt. When Byron and Polidori wrote fantasies about each other, they wrote not about masters and servants, but about friends. In 1819, Polidori defended his Vampyre from groundless attributions to Byron, elevating himself from servant to gentleman: "Lord Byron is not the author—I ... am that author I was the 'Gentleman' who travelled with his Lordship and who wrote the whole of that trifle" (quoted in Macdonald, p. 180; Polidori's italics). The vampire is an equalizer, turning vassals into peers. His monster raises the mocked servant to collaborative dignity.

The vampire fragment Byron began at Villa Diodati in 1816 and Polidori's 1819 tale, The Vampyre, are symbiotic. Polidori pervades Byron's fragment. In his poetry, Byron generally displays himself in all the flair of the first person, but his Darvell has no existence independent of his traveling companion's awe. The real Polidori watched his master's histrionics with diagnostic resentment; the companion Byron creates brims with a tenderness that consecrates the apparent death in Turkey of his brilliant, strangely debilitated friend. The fragment is less a tale of terror than an account of a romantic friendship only a vampire could inspire.

Polidori's The Vampyre, which was instantly attributed to Byron, is a sardonic development of Byron's material. The tale is Polidori's own, but it is steeped in Byron and Byronism. Aubrey, through whom the tale is told, is a bookish naïf like Jane Austen's Catherine Morland; like her, Aubrey lives in a heightened world of books, making Ruthven into "the hero of a romance, [determining] to observe the offspring of his fancy, rather than the person before him" (p. 8). Soon, Aubrey tries to extricate himself from his perverse hero, but separation is impossible. Ruthven, who unlike the sketchy Darvell is a full-fledged vampire, binds the reluctant young man with his oath, kills the woman he loves, and marries his sister in order to glut his thirst with her on their wedding night. Unlike the vampires he spawned, Ruthven not only survives the end of his story: he is so irresistible and elusive that Aubrey, who alone knows what he is, never dreams of killing him. Ruthven's dreadful power springs from his oath of friendship.

Byron and Polidori suffused each other's vampire tales as indelibly as they had each other's identities on their unhappy journey. Polidori's Vampyre not only elaborates on Byron's sketch: the name "Ruthven" alludes to the Byron character in Lady Caroline Lamb's satiric roman à clef, Glenarvon. A strained journey generated a mutual obsession that created a monster, in a collaboration as authentic, if disaffected, as the one that produced Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads. Out of a hating, needing companionship between men came not only Romantic poetry, but the Romantic vampire. Later vampires are more indiscriminately evil and disgusting than the ones Byron inspired, but licentious as they are, few have been allowed to embark on a journey with another male.

This journey had no precedent. In Slavic folklore, the main repository of vampires before the Romantics began to write about them, vampires never ventured beyond their birthplace. Byron used their clannishness to ghoulish effect in another fragment, his Turkish tale The Giaour (1813). The "false Infidel" of The Giaour is blasted by the curse of returning to family life as a vampire:

But first, on earth as Vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent;
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life....

In a lurid climax, the vampire devours his favorite daughter, who nevertheless blesses the name "father" as she dies. The vampire in The Giaour is a patriarchal, incestuous spirit who eats his dependent women. The vampire's restriction to his family plot anticipates the sentimental folklore of the twentieth century: in Thornton Wilder's beloved family play Our Town (1938) and the beloved movie Ghost (1990), undead protagonists return like folklore vampires, to embrace the confined spaces they had lived in. The hell Byron's Giaour envisions is the traditional folkloric hell—and American heaven—of domestic confinement, which is never free from revenants.

The prose tales of Byron and Polidori discard this stationary familial hell. Darvell is by nature and definition itinerant, springing to life "on a journey through countries not hitherto much frequented by travellers" (Byron, in Penguin, p. 2). Ruthven is equally vagrant but more social, thriving on "the dissipations attendant upon a London winter," where his sepulchral gloom ensures popularity: "His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him, and those who had been accustomed to violent excitement, and now felt the weight of ennui, were pleased at having something in their presence capable of engaging their attention" (Polidori, in Penguin, p. 7). Ruthven haunts everyone's home, but unlike folkloric vampires, he has none of his own to prey on.

Since these vampires go everywhere but home, they are indifferent to incest. Their hunger, like their itinerant lives, explores realms beyond family definition. Darvell, who devours no one and so withers mysteriously, finds death and presumptive renewal in a mysterious Turkish cemetery far from England; Ruthven drinks Aubrey vicariously through his women, but he makes no move toward a sister, mother, or daughter of his own. Romantic fiction licenses folkloric family devourers to reach into uncharted spaces. The friendship itself is "a journey through countries not hitherto much frequented by travellers," removing vampirism from licensed homes and categorizable intimacies. They slide so deftly beyond classification that their stories are unanchored by that later obligatory antagonist, the vampire expert who knows how to kill them.

Vampires make draining friends in the nineteenth century, but as we shall see, only when vampires are women do their friends become literal prey: Coleridge's Geraldine and her prose descendant, Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, leap from homoerotic friendship to homosexual love, but male vampires refuse to love their food. For most of them, the need to feed on women is an annoying distraction from their political or metaphysical concerns. Vampiric hunger is incidental to men who have their most complex identities as friends.

Vampire friendship as Byron and Polidori imagined it was so single-minded that popular adaptation had to force their rapacity into conventional channels. The theater subdued its intensities by shifting the emphasis to marriage. J. R. Planché's melodrama, The Vampire; or, The Bride of the Isles (1820), a loose adaptation from Polidori, invented the rule that the vampire must marry his maiden before fortifying himself with her. Accordingly Planché's Ruthven is as indiscriminately thirsty for a wedding as Jane Austen's proper clergyman Mr. Collins; his need for bridal blood leaves him little energy for friendship. Offstage, however, Romantic vampires saw marriage only as a conduit to human men. In their allegiance to an unattainable male friend, these yearning vampires were truer than melodrama's predators to the obsessions of canonical Romantic poetry.

Romantic heroes as well as vampires often yearn less for marriage than for impossible friendships. Wordsworth and Coleridge's collaboration on the Lyrical Ballads seems to have been as symbiotic, as tormented by fearful identification and repudiation, as was Byron and Polidori's chafing journey to Geneva. Wordsworth never wrote a vampire story about Coleridge, but his most sustained poetic self-definition, The Prelude, abounds in plangent addresses to "Friend!"; the poem continued to spin itself out long after the souring of the friendship and the death of Coleridge. The absent friend who understands is a more vivid and moving presence in Wordsworth's Prelude, and throughout his work, than are the rocklike mentors, the flowing sisters or spouses, in whom he tries to find sustenance.

Sanctioned marriage is as emotionally vacant in much canonical Romanticism as it is in vampire stories. Haunted by thirst and by vampire-like variations on living death, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner nullifies the ceremony toward which the Wedding Guest dutifully trudges, exploring instead a darker, stronger bond, one of repelled identification with a terrible friend who, like Wordsworth perhaps, forces him to hear the story of his life—or life in death. In the same spirit, Victor Frankenstein's wedding is annulled by his most intimate friend, his creature, whose tale Victor cannot choose but hear; the creature's oath, like Ruthven's, vitiates the wedding by killing the bride. Even the canon of that slyly self-effacing Romantic Jane Austen rings constant changes on her early thematic play between "Love" and "Freindship" [sic]: her obligatory weddings are sickeningly hollow, if not inhuman, without the assurance the story gives that their essence is complex friendship. Weddings may be narrative necessities, but only a friend can show you, if horribly, who or what you are.

In societies where families are inescapable and marriage is enforced, friendship may be a more indelible taboo than incest. In a dreadful way, the Byronic vampire/friend fulfills the promise of Romanticism, offering a mutuality between subject and object so intense that it overwhelms conventional hierarchies and bonds. The interfusion, as Wordsworth might have called it, between vampire and mortal makes familiar boundaries fluid, offering a wider world than home and a larger self than one sustained by sanctioned relationships.

The association of Darvell and Ruthven with a free-floating Orientalism that had not quite become a rationale for imperialism dissolves constraints of place: Darvell finds his spiritual home in Turkey, Ruthven his in Greece, making them in a psychic sense amalgams of West and East. Drawing their identities from England and the East but belonging to neither, Darvell and Ruthven dissolve, at climactic moments, into phantoms, discarding altogether their transgressing bodies.

As revenants, the once-living returned, vampires and ghosts were originally scarcely distinguishable. The first use of vampire the Oxford English Dictionary records, in 1734, defines them as "evil Spirits" who animate the "Bodies of deceased persons." Folklorists use vampire interchangeably with revenant or ghost. Only gradually did vampires lose their identification with the human world to acquire the menace of a separate species.

"'We will each write a ghost story,' said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us." So, according to Mary Shelley, began the famous competition in 1816 that produced Frankenstein and Dracula, our two great modern monsters, neither of whom looks like a ghost today. The ghosts born at the Villa Diodati are not mere shadows of the formerly living. They have bodies of their own and independent identities. Nevertheless, they appropriate the majesty of phantoms, borrowing spiritual authority from England's most imposing ghost, King Hamlet.


Excerpted from Our Vampires, Ourselves by Nina Auerbach. Copyright © 1995 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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